Publisher-President Tom Curley was among the four Gannett executives tapped in 1979 by Mr. Neuharth to develop the paper, and has watched it grow to boast the nation's largest circulation. As of March, USA Today was reporting 2.12 million circulation on Monday to Thursday. (About 43% of that circulation are hotel copies.) The paper's Friday weekend edition had reached 2.57 million. In the wake of 9/11, USA Today saw ad revenue drop 11% on a 16% decline in ad pages. Gannett owns 94 daily newspapers including USA Today, Sunday magazine USA Weekend, 300 non-dailies, 22 TV stations and numerous Web sites.
Ad Age Washington Bureau Chief Ira Teinowitz sat down with Mr. Curley to talk about USA Today's past and future.
AA: The original vision of USA Today was a fast read, "McPaper" as it was called. What is today's vision?
Tom Curley: [USA Today Editor] Karen Jurgensen has coined the phrase 3G, the third generation of USA Today. In the first generation [to 1994] we had certain values. We were colorful. We were accessible. We were fair, balanced. You could get in and you could get out. In the second generation [to 1999], we believe we did lose sight of some of those first-generation values, accessibility, ease of use and packaging and so forth.
The third-generation USA Today is supposed to embody the best of the first two and take it a step further. We want that accessibility. We want that ease of use. We want that strictly formatted newspaper. We also want content you can get nowhere else.
We are no longer a newspaper; we are a network. We feed content to television. We feed content to the Internet from the same core platform.
AA: It was originally sold as a newspaper, then as a magazine ... how is USA Today positioned today?
Curley: Right now there is a category that is strong enough and is robust enough ... and it's called national newspapers. A few years back, that didn't exist. The repositioning of The Wall Street Journal and the addition of The New York Times are terrific steps and have given us a very robust and competitive category
We are looking at next steps including programming and syndication. We don't see going to a 24-hour channel, but we do see taking USA Today to a regularly produced program availability. In that there would be some packaging to get us to be a TV buy, at least a small buy. The first pass will be within the Gannett family then see where we go from there.
AA: What happened to the "journalism of hope?"
Curley: It was never a deep part of the culture. It was a clever part of a speech. We are about serious journalism. As long as we do serious journalism and do it with balance and fairness and trustworthiness, we are fine. Let me give you an example of balance. We have done a couple of stories on why [would someone] be a priest in this era and what it takes to be a priest, and they were very positive stories. The same person who did that also wrote a very gripping story on how [child abuse by priests] could be allowed to occur. I consider this normal journalistic balance.
AA: The Web has become a significant part of USA Today. What is the role of the newspaper vs. the Web?
Curley: The basic content of the newspaper is going to be on the Web. But the Web is also going in different directions that we call content verticals ... taking certain content areas and going deeper.
In travel, we have a daily columnist on the Web, who updates the news and does his own reporting. That stuff does not appear in the print version but it fits well with what we are trying to accomplish. It is the instant version of USA Today. So what in this 24/7 world stands out and makes sense. Where can we provide unique information?
AA: Is the Web making money?
Curley: We did for a couple of years. We are not now. But it's on its way back. For the last many months it was devalued as a medium. ... Now, it's coming back and there is a healthy attitude in the ad community that it works for these things. ... It's about connections and about targeting customers more directly than other mass media do.
AA: Other plans to expand the brand? Products? Licensing?
Curley: The licensing has become pretty lucrative. We are selling USA Today content to textbook publishers and to [wireless information providers] ... that is getting to be a double-digit multimillion dollar income stream that was not anticipated. We've only been going after that in the last two years. USA Today has a hotel [in-room TV] channel. It's pretty tiny now, but in the future it could be more. We see that whole electronic movement of content as a nice revenue stream. For us the big call is how to get electronic. You will see all three national print publications move aggressively on the broadcast side.
AA: Business travel cuts and advertising's fall off are hurting USA Today. Do these events portend problems ahead or is it a temporary blip?
Curley: It's a blip that goes well beyond USA Today. Where we have to be cautious is the country is preparing for another offensive, this time Iraq, and the entire business community is trying to make sense of what that means. There is a bit of a hiatus here and the travel industry is central to this. But it is temporary and it will pass.
I still think tech has led the economy and has led America for more than 200 years and where tech goes will really determines where the economy goes. Until you see capital spending take off again, I don't think this economy is going jump.
I don't see a proper recovery before 2004. I hope I am wrong. I'm not seeing any quick recovery.
AA: In looking back, what were the big surprises?
Curley: The core issue is defining national and what amount of circulation did it take to get you to be considered national. Our original research suggested 2.3 million. We got a happy surprise that as we approached 2 million, we were accepted and deemed national. The tough surprise is ... it's a big country. To try to deliver late news and scores to every corner of the United States was more expensive than we imagined. ... We had hoped for a little more revenue sooner, but it was slower coming. If there was anything we underestimated it is the attitude certain people had towards newspapers as national advertising vehicles in the country. We expected that we would create a national newspaper, great color opportunities, great customer service ... that we would be rewarded. Eventually we were. But there was a gap. It took years to establish. It took longer to sell the concept. As I have watched other media come on line and go through these phases, all of us who start things probably have some false expectations, some false optimism about how soon revenue streams will be switched.
AA: At one point you said USA Today was a newspaper in evolution. Is it still evolving?
Curley: Absolutely. I hope we are always evolving. One of the things that most excites me about this fall is coverage of the football season will be much deeper, much different from what it has been....The Monday financial weather map, is another example where you will get an evolution in the content, a level of depth that isn't in other newspapers. The third thing that stands out is the front page. We say we shout more. We have been pushing that further in the last year or so. It's all part of what we think you have to do to stand out.